KENT—Actress and author Illeanna Douglas treated Kent residents to her insight into movies made in Connecticut following a Jan. 20 Kent Memorial Library Association annual meeting.
Douglas, who recently returned to her natal Connecticut from California, has released her new book, “Connecticut in the Movies,” which follows the history of the state as it was depicted in the cinema over the decades.
That progression saw the state’s image transformed from a bucolic retreat to a darker, creepy Connecticut, the locale of such epics as “Friday the 13th Part 2” and “The Curse of the Living Corpse.”
How, and why, the perception of the state changed is an underlying theme in her book.
“When I was a kid, my ears would perk up if a story was set in Connecticut, or a character was from Connecticut,” she read from the introduction to her book. “Often, the filmmakers used it as a kind of shorthand to convey something beyond just a location, or a description of a man or woman’s home state. It signaled something about that person or place, giving insight, or adding context.”
For instance, in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1948 film “Rope,” spoiled rich boys Brandon Shaw and Philip Morgan have strangled a fellow classmate to see if they can get away with murder.
The movie is loosely based on the story of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, who killed a little boy in Chicago for the same reason, but Hitchcock chose to transplant the villains to Connecticut.
“Why did Hitchcock feel it was more menacing if they were from Connecticut?” Douglas asked. “Hitchcock used Connecticut as if it were an unseen character.”
More than 250 films have been made in the state since the era of silent movies, some of them, such as “Bringing Up Baby,” “Christmas in Connecticut,” “Mr. Blanding Builds his Dream House,” “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit,” “The Stepford Wives,” and “Mystic Pizza,” of enduring value. But, Douglas argues, this fact remains unrecognized because the films never fell into a single genre.
Two films, “Friday the 13th” and “Soul to Keep” were made in Kent.
“Who are we— “Christmas in Connecticut” or a dark, wife-swapping society?” she asked. “It fascinates me. Why did Alfred Hitchcock think it was more sinister because the murderer went to Yale? Connecticut moved from an image of serenity in the transformational films to zombies living in your house.”
She noted that some stereotypes even found their origin with Connecticut actors. William Gillette—yes, he of Gillette Castle fame—was an early portrayer of Sherlock Holmes. “He created the persona of Sherlock Holmes,” Douglas asserted. “He added the pipe and created the phrase, ‘Elementary, my dear Watson.’”
She said many of the sites used in the movies still look the same today. But, oddly, Mr. Blanding’s house, officially located in “Lansdale” but actually based on the New Milford-Danbury region, never existed in Connecticut. A Hollywood version of a “Connecticut” house, with few characteristics of East Coast homes, was constructed in California. Ironically, the movie was so popular that the California house became identified as the epitome of Connecticut architecture.
“A publicity man came up with the plan that became the Connecticut dream house throughout the country,” she said. “The Blanding house was built in Hollywood—so what is real?”
That was not the only effect of the movie. “Connecticut was considered to be superior living by those who wanted to get out of the city and be close to nature,” she said. “But it also was living next to the right kind of people.”
From “Mr. Blanding” through the 1950s, all the transformational Connecticut characters seemed to be in advertising in the city. And suddenly, advertising had a real place in the movies. For the first time, “Mr. Blanding” included product placement. “It’s now an idea that is cemented,” she said.